Diaz starting solid

With a sizzling .474 mark, Curve catcher Elias Diaz ended Monday night’s game with the highest batting average in all of pro baseball – majors or minors.

Diaz went 4-for-5 with three RBIs to continue his red-hot start in Altoona’s 10-1 thumping of Harrisburg at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Unfortunately for him, a few minutes after the Curve finished, a Single-A hitter in the Phillies’ system, Williams Astudillo, finished off a 3-for-4 night to inch just ahead of Diaz with a .476 average to lead all of baseball.

Keep in mind, there are more than 4,000 pros playing baseball right now, so to be ranked second in any category shows just how fantastic Diaz has been so far for the Curve.

“I’ve got to stay hungry, got to stay humble,” Diaz said, with teammate Mel Rojas Jr. translating. “I come to the field hungry every day to play hard every day.”

Diaz would have been 5-for-5 Monday, but Harrisburg second baseman Cutter Dykstra – Lenny’s son – robbed him of a hit up the middle with a diving stop to his right.

It’s been a very small sample size with only 41 plate appearances in the early going, but Diaz has the look of a polished hitter on the verge of a strong season.

“Everything just looks so easy to him right now,” third baseman Jarek Cunningham said. “In BP, in the game, everything just slows down for him. He’s getting pitches he wants, he waits for them, he’s not swinging at pitches down in the zone.

“It’s just amazing to watch.”

“I’m very impressed,” Rojas said of Diaz’s torrid start.

What’s most impressive about Diaz is where he’s hitting the ball. He’s a right-handed hitter, but almost all of his hits have been to center or right field.

Now, that’s the goal for most right-handed hitters. Stay on the ball a little longer, let it travel further to the plate so they can see it better and then smack it the other way.

It’s hitting 101.

And while it sounds simple in theory, it’s incredibly difficult in practice. Even the best major league hitters have trouble with it, and for a first-year Double-A player to be so good at hitting the ball the other way, it’s no doubt impressive.

The only other right-handed hitter in the Curve’s 16 seasons who has made it look so easy going the other way was Jeff Keppinger in 2004. He was a machine at hitting line drives over the second baseman’s head, and sure enough, Keppinger won the Eastern League batting title that year and has gone on to hit .282 in nine major league seasons.

What Diaz, a 23-year-old Venezuela native, has done so far with the Curve has to be a very pleasant surprise for the Pirates. He hit only .221 in 2011 and .208 in 2012 at low-A West Virginia. He’s a good defensive catcher, so the Pirates promoted him to high-A Bradenton last year, and Diaz answered the challenge with a .279 average in part-time duty (57 games).

There’s no way the Pirates could have expected this kind of start from him, but that’s the beauty of baseball. Just like Alex Presley came out of nowhere hitting .350 for the Curve in 2010 – after hitting in the .250s for two years in Single-A — sometimes players perform better the higher up the go.

“Yeah, definitely, it’s a big surprise,” Garcia said. “We know we have a chance to do some nice things offensively, but not at the point you’re going to hit .400. He’s hitting the ball real well, and most of the time he doesn’t try to pull the ball. He stays middle, inside-out type of swing, and for the most part you’re going to barrel a lot of balls.”

Cunningham, who watched Diaz’s at-bats from the on-deck circle Monday, isn’t so surprised because in spring training Diaz was “just the exact same way, crushing balls in the gaps and everything was hit hard then.”

Diaz said he worked hard on his opposite-field approach in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he hit .256 against premium competition, and that has carried over to this season.

The Pirates made a roster move Monday that, at first glance, would seem to limit Diaz’s playing time. With catcher Chris Stewart healthy and rejoining the big league team, Tony Sanchez was sent down to Triple-A, forcing Carlos Paulino to be bumped back down to the Curve.

Paulino was the primary catcher in Triple-A, so one would think he would get the majority of the time in Altoona. Not so, however.

“The sound of the bat tells you who is going to play,” said Garcia, who mentioned Diaz will get priority behind the plate for the time being, playing two out of every three days.

Paulino hit .220 last year for the Curve and was hitting just .207 for Indianapolis, but he’s a strong defensive catcher. Diaz, though, has shown good skills defensively with the Curve, which also will help him remain in the lineup.

“He’s very good defensively,” Garcia said. “You can see him play nine innings full speed, a lot of energy. Getting better in the game calling, leading the pitching staff. He’s doing a phenomenal job. This kid is up to good things.”